Tribal Leadership Is a Business System That’s Totally Useful in Therapy [30]

By Dr. Keith Witt
October 13, 2011
conversation-150 Jim—mid-twenties, strong and good-looking, strides frowning into my office. He usually arrives bummed out and in a hurry. Jim loves hiking in the mountains behind Santa Barbara, sometimes bulling his way through chaparral and up rock faces with pure power. I know his family to be good people who are worried sick about his alcoholism, which recently resulted in his first DUI (if you work at all with alcoholics, you get in the habit of saying “ first DUI”). The DUI woke Jim up enough so that he’s currently struggling with abstinence and attending AA meetings. Like many addicts in the first stages of recovery, Jim slips periodically, occasionally driving up to the top of San Marcos Pass with a whiskey bottle, drinking it in the moonlight, and talking to the bottle until he passes out. Not surprisingly, Jim suffers clinical depression and has catastrophic personal relationships. I get him a cup of tea and ask him, “How are you doing?” Jim gives me a sour look, “It’s another shitty day in paradise.” Jim is a classic example of a Tribal Stage two individual. His life position is, “My life sucks.” He believes that others have good lives, and even that he himself could be happy and successful. It’s just that, on balance, his life sucks. Tribal Leadership is genius. Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright are the authors of Tribal Leadership, a groundbreaking work on how humans naturally form tribes with like-minded others, and that these tribes develop from primitive tribal stage one (life sucks) to advanced stage five (life is great). You can tell what kind of tribal orientation someone has by observing what they do and how they talk—literally the words they use. Here are a few details of the Tribal Leadership system (for the real deal, treat yourself and go to, these guys are incredible):
  • Human groups—from a few to around a 150 people—naturally form five kinds of tribes, from primitive to more evolved.
  • Tribal Stage One, “life sucks,” people have little hope or respect for themselves or others. Think street gangs.
  • Stage Two, “my life sucks,” believe, “My life is awful,” but that others have happiness, excellence, and meaning that just might be attainable. The classic example is hopeless workers in sterile cubicles (or depressed alcoholic wounded warriors like Jim).
  • Stage Three is, “I’m great and you’re not.” We all know (or are) the egocentric high-achiever who’s constantly busy, “Surrounded by idiots,” and overwhelmed by work/home demands and responsibilities. Many business cultures orient around powerful Stage Three individuals.
  • Stage Four is, “We’re great, and you’re not.” These tribal groups are bound together by shared values and passionate purpose (Logan calls it “noble cause”) and naturally work cooperatively to realize a shared vision. I imagine the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live have spent many years on a Tribal Four level.
  • Stage Five “Life is great,” groups work blissfully together to change the world. Steve Jobs—Stage Five tribal leader as he often was—challenged and supported his people in Apple (brimming with collective genius) to change the world. Stage four tribes can rise to stage five when their noble cause is primarily for the benefit of mankind and less about competing with others (one of Logan’s favorite examples is the Apple engineer who was intoxicated with creating a home computer that was “So easy to operate, my grandmother could do it.”).
  • Tribal Stage Four is as sophisticated as most tribes get, but Tribal Stage Five still keeps showing up, reflecting evolution reaching through culture—groups self-organizing towards greater compassion and deeper consciousness.
  • Like most developmental stage models, you can’t skip levels. Tribal one “life sucks” has to uplevel to Tribal two “my life sucks” before he can get stable at Tribal three “I’m great.” “I’m great” individuals can coordinate values/purpose with others into Tribal four “we’re great.”  “We’re great” groups can temporarily uplevel to Tribal five “life is great” visionaries, but tend to regress back after the project comes to fruition.
  • In general, tribes regress (for instance, “We’re great” fractures into “I’m great and your not”) unless they regularly review and refine their values while focusing on the current slice of noble cause. This is so like therapy. Ongoing self-reflection with positive intent accelerates progress after sessions—ask any therapist.
The Tribal Leadership system was designed by Dave Logan, whose roots are in rhetoric—the study of persuasive dialogue. Logan is a professor of business at University of Southern California, and bases his evaluations and understanding purely on language and behavior. I hope he realizes how relevant his work is to psychotherapy. Tribal two Jim—lost in “my life sucks”—needs to uplevel to Tribal three “my life is great.” To do this requires acknowledging his own gifts and skills, and speaking and acting from these strengths (language and behavior). We spend a lot of time on this, with me busting him each time he slips into “my life sucks” references, and encouraging and guiding him towards an “I’m great” identity. Today Jim starts talking about his job as a construction foreman. “I like framing. It’s clean work because all you have to do is follow the blueprints and—wow!—a house starts taking shape. I just wish the morons on my crew didn’t keep screwing things up.” Even though Jim is trashing his crew, the “I’m great” inferences reflect progress from “my life sucks.” I do the classic Tribal Leadership maneuver of creating a triad—directing Jim to connect positively with someone else, “You told me a few weeks ago you usually like the guys on your crew. I’ll bet if you spent a little time going over the plans and talking about how cool today’s piece of the job is, there’d be fewer mistakes and more fun.” Jim looks thoughtful at this. He wants to talk about the crew being “morons,” but this idea of sharing values and techniques appeals to him—he is a dedicated worker, and can sense it would be productive. “I’ll try it,” he says, “But I don’t expect too much.” I smile, “I don’t know Jim. Usually when you put your mind to something, you’re quite successful.” He smiles back, only half-sarcastically, “Yeah, I know…I’m great.”

Get my FREE Art and Science of Relationships Series

I’m a licensed clinical psychologist, lecturer and author dedicated to studying, teaching, and creating transformative healing systems. I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for 40 years.
I want to give you access to the really GOOD stuff. And I want to give it to you free of charge.

Program Includes:

1 eBook; "The Attuned Family"

1 School of Love Lecture Series Video

Monthly program emails containing insights and prompts, all designed to help you love better.